Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Abbas Kiarostami, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker who has made his first film in Europe with Certified Copy, has made a film so deceptively straightforward that by the time you realize you’ve been led into an intellectual hall of mirrors, it’s easy to take it in stride. Two characters drive through the Italian countryside. We think we know them. We meet them. We’re drawn into their lives as they while away the gorgeous afternoon hours together. We spend time with them. But, wait a minute. Who are they? What clues from how they interact can add up into a larger assumption? What’s ultimately puzzling about the movie is what’s so thrilling about it. It artfully deconstructs the very nature of fictional filmmaking. What is it that makes actors performing a scenario, if convincing enough, relatable on a human level? On occasion, it’s even easier to relate, to sympathize, to feel for what is ultimately nothing more than a facsimile, an approximation, a copy of human existence. Certified Copy has the simple formal audacity to ask this question through the story of two people who are implicitly giving themselves the exact same queries. Or are they? Ah, that’s the trick.

It all starts at a reading a professor (William Shimell) gives on his new book. His academic work is an inquiry into the value of reproductions, copies of artwork. If the copy can provoke the same emotional or intellectual response as the authentic original, is the reproduction not itself some kind of art? A woman (Juliette Binoche) and a young boy (Adrian Moore) move towards the front of the room. We cut away from the scholar behind his lectern and watch as they try to settle in. She takes a seat in the front row. The boy is restless, trying to get her attention. What does the man, droning on unseen, do in reaction to this potential distraction unfolding right in front of him? Kiarostami doesn’t cut back. He withholds information about the relationships between actions in the room. The woman and the boy silently communicate while the words that the man is speaking fill the soundtrack. Two mundane moments joined in one fictional scene, and yet the context of the opening scene of a movie by a major filmmaker elevates it to a level of curiosity and inquiry. It’s a copy of real life that achieves a power different from than the original.

Later that day the woman and the man meet and go for a drive. They’re just meeting. At least I thought they were, at first. After all, the film has just begun. The audience has just met the characters. There is no exposition that would lead us to believe they know each other. But as their afternoon goes on, their intellectual conversation grows personal. A waitress mistakes them for husband and wife. But is it a mistake? The woman goes along with it. Conversations circle around, in three languages, effortlessly no less, devouring themselves, covering the same ground or moving on. Discrepancies appear, or do they? The man and the woman test and provoke one another, question, ramble, and flirt. Dialogue becomes monologue and back again. They could very well be a couple, married or lovers, or perhaps they had a relationship that has gone cold, or ended. They could be trying out personas to spice things up or rekindle lost feelings. They could just as easily be strangers playacting a relationship, feeling the waters, testing the limits of the value of a copy, living his thesis.

I have seen the film several times and just when I think I’m close to pinning down an interpretation the film slips away. And yet rather than leave me frustrated, it leaves me invigorated. I want to dive back into the film and spend time with these characters once more, to find the explanation that works best for me this time, an explanation that will undoubtedly be as satisfying and as filled with nagging threads of doubt as each time before. (The strangest interpretation I’ve read proposed time travel to explain away the narrative and thematic wrinkles. I don’t buy it. And yet I can’t deny that I won’t bring myself to discard it entirely either.)

There’s a moment when the man and the woman stop off at a church and we see a bride preparing herself to appear for the cameras and spectators as if she feels the emotion of the moment. But what does she really feel? What is the emotion of the moment for her? Because we see her prepare, we’re let in on the secret. Surely there must be such an answer for this man and woman, too. Is showing an emotion the same as revealing it? Does it even matter when it provokes the same response to an observer, to a camera, to an audience? In the case of this couple, they’re playing to an audience of one, each other. This is a film of reflections, windows and mirrors prominently placed in the frame, endlessly doubling the details or allowing for deep introspection.

That the central relationship of the film remains an utter enigma throughout does not rob the film of emotional power. On the contrary, it opens up rich avenues of exploration. To call it a simple puzzle or a gimmick would be simply unfair. This is a film that could easily be viewed as simply waves of confident befuddlement, just as easily as some could reject it outright as too simple or obtuse. But Binoche and Shimell imbue their characters with such rich humanity and complicated, powerful interior lives and Kiarostami films them with such patience and care that I find it impossible to resist. It’s a film of intellectual and emotional envelopment, a pleasure of the highest order. Who are these people, these cinematic copies of the real thing, and why does filmmaking have the power to make me care so deeply so quickly, even knowing that I’ll never truly know them? They remain fixed there on the screen; they won’t change, only my reactions to them will. With a wondrously delicate dance of the emotional and intellectual, Kiarostami makes art out of artifice even as he asks if that’s even possible. In different moments of the film, the man and the woman each spend time staring into a mirror, but the camera stands in its place so that they are essentially looking into the audience to see what is reflected there.

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